World champion racer turned world champion company owner
WORDS AARON WALDRON
PHOTO SEAN EARNEST
Joel Johnson’s time in the RC spotlight has lasted much longer than 15 minutes. He made the transition from being one of the most successful and dominant racers in history, capturing more than 30 national titles and standing as one of the few drivers to win an off-road (1987) and on-road (1992) World Championship, to being the president of a national, world championship winning brand — AKA Products.
How did you get started in RC?
I was introduced to RC at a very young age. My father had been racing model boats since the late 60s and we owned a hobby shop for years. So, you could say I was born into the RC industry.
What motivated you to continue progressing in the world of RC? When did you realize that this was something that you could, and wanted to, make into your career?
I’m not sure there was really one specific factor that motivated me to continue to race and participate in the RC industry. I started at 8 years old, so in a way, it was my life and that’s what I knew. When you have the type of success on the track that I had, it is difficult to stop. Once I did quit and went back to finish my degree at San Jose State, I was able to start seeing the business side of the industry with a bit more clarity. I was able to see where I had value outside of being a racer.
What was your first major accomplishment in RC?
My first major accomplishment on a national level was winning two national championships in 1/12 electric at the age of 13 in 1981. This was my break-out race.
Tell us about AKA’s relationship with major manufacturers, like Kyosho — are you separate and on your own now?
AKA is its own company now. The AKA brand was bought from Kyosho at the end of 2008. We still have a close working relationship with Kyosho; that being said, we also work closely with the Losi team on our short course and 1:8 off-road program, and many other manufacturers as well.
What has been the biggest and most memorable RC innovation of the last 20 years that has helped shape the hobby we have today?
I would have to point to manufacturing in China. Once the “ready-to-run” products were cheap and reliable enough, our industry started the slow march towards being high-end toys. Not only have the products changed, but the type of customers who walk through the door and the feel of the “local” hobby shops has changed as well.
Is there anything you would have liked to see happen in the last 20 years of RC that didn’t materialize or have the impact you originally thought?
I would have liked to have seen the racing side of the industry mature faster than it has. This really has to be accomplished by manufacturers working together in concert with an organization like ROAR. The manufacturers have been too busy trying to win races rather than working together and putting some of that effort towards improving the racing. Races today don’t look any different than they did 20 years ago.
How important is competition among manufacturers in order to drive innovation and progression? Is it mostly internal, or in response to competitors?
Competition amongst manufacturers is the key factor triggering innovation in our industry. Innovation costs money, so not many companies out there will continue to innovate unless their hand is forced because of the loss of sales.
What product advancements in the last 20 years do you feel have made the biggest impact on the industry for the average consumer?
The two biggest advancements for the average consumer in the past 20 years are 2.4 GHz radios and the coming of age of “ready-to-run” products. Both these advancements made it very easy for the consumer to get an RC product up and running in minimal time.
What are the biggest differences between East Coast and West Coast RC?
There are two big differences that come to mind. The first is the accessibility of racing tracks. The West Coast has always enjoyed many more places to race and/or play with RC cars versus the East Coast. This is due in part to the climate and culture on the West Coast. The second largest difference is the level of the racing. The West Coast is filled with manufacturers who have representatives at the tracks weekly. To win a club race on the West Coast, especially in Southern California, can be a real accomplishment. While I lived on the East Coast, I really enjoyed the club racing. It was a very fun vibe and reminded me of why I started racing in the first place. Manufacturer involvement at the local level is not always a positive thing.
Do you think it’s harder or easier to find lifelong success in the RC industry compared to 20 years ago?
There are many more opportunities to make a career in the RC industry than there were 20 years ago, but I wouldn’t say it’s any easier to succeed. If anything, it’s more difficult.
AKA was founded as a brand of Kyosho in 2007. Gil Losi Jr., Gil Losi Sr., and Joel Johnson purchased AKA from Kyosho in 2008.
AKA Products currently produces 362 different items.
AKA Products was the first to release a close-celled foam insert, the pin-on-block design (the AKA City Block), and the first to do resealable packaging for tires.
Five full-time employees work for AKA Products.
AKA won its first European Championship in 2012 with Darren Bloomfield, first IFMAR Worlds in 2010 with Cody King, and its first ROAR Nationals in 2010 with Jared Tebo.